Realizing Democracy’s Kevin Simowitz talks with Connie Razza, Jamila Michener and Deepak Bhargava about how to understand and manage policy feedback loops — policies that create new political conditions and determine the possibilities for future political action. As Razza puts it, “Policy feedback loops are happening, whether you mean them to or not.” The left needs to take these feedback loops into account so that we pursue policies that fundamentally alter the relations of power in our society rather than accepting short-term gains that might undermine us in the future. 

Razza is the Executive Director of Social and Economic Justice Leaders Project, Michener is a Professor of Government at Cornell University, and Bhargava is a distinguished lecturer at the School of Labor and Urban Studies at CUNY and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. They talk about how the right is better at prioritizing a long-term agenda, why the left needs to make policy feedback loops central to our strategic plans, and the most exciting frontiers in this work today. The interview has been edited and condensed. 


Kevin Simowitz: Let’s talk about how policy feedback loops factor into campaigns. What do we mean when we say policy feedback loops?

Jamila Michener: Think about the ingredients, like if we are baking a cake. You need the design of a policy, you need the key actors who are involved in making the policy, you have the way the policy is implemented and evaluated — all of those different pieces of the policy puzzle. Then you add the key ingredient, which is time. As time goes by, those ingredients create unfolding conditions. That might mean that in the next round of policymaking, it's easier to achieve your goals or that it's harder to achieve your goals. The policy feedback ingredient that is key here is time: how what we do now shapes the political circumstances that we're going to have to deal with going forward.


KS: What is an example of a policy feedback loop?

JM: Medicaid is one. We understand all of the health benefits that come from that, but it's easy to forget that Medicaid has implications for our politics too and for our democracy. Medicaid provides people with a resource that equips them to be able to participate more robustly in our political system. But beyond that, the feedback piece of Medicaid is how the experience of that program shapes the way that people engage in democracy. As I'm utilizing Medicaid, I'm experiencing the government. I'm experiencing how easy it is for me to get benefits, how difficult it is, how many administrative burdens are associated with those benefits. I'm coming into contact with all sorts of people who may represent the most government I ever come into contact with. That shapes the way I think about who I am as a member of a political community. It changes the way I think about the government. Medicaid is a federated program, so it shapes how I think about what the states and localities are doing. What my research shows is that the way that I make political decisions is different after the experience of having been enrolled in Medicaid. That's a way that the policy itself creates a different kind of politics that shapes how people are going to be engaged going forward. 

Connie Razza: Every time that you talk about policy feedback loops, I have a new aha moment. Policy feedback loops are happening, whether you mean them to or not. So how are we attending to that on the front end? It's not just the big policy alone; it's also all the little policies that go into the implementation of that big policy, so that there are lots of opportunities.


KS: Deepak, you've written about how policy feedback loops were used effectively by the right during the Obama years to disrupt the progressive agenda. Can you walk us through what happened?

Deepak Bhargava: The Obama administration deprioritized a whole host of potential priorities that would have altered power relationships in society in favor of people who didn't have power. Things like workers’ right to organize through the Employee Free Choice Act, immigration reform that would have given a path to citizenship for undocumented people, and changes in voting systems were not on the top of the agenda for the Obama administration.

The policies they did pursue were not oriented to the kind of feedback loops Jamila just talked about. For example, the tax cuts embedded in the Recovery Act were deliberately designed to be submerged. People who received them didn't understand that they had received them. So there's no political credit that would ensue for that. They were designed that way under the theory that people would be more likely to spend the money if they didn't realize that they had gotten it. That may or may not be good economic logic, but it's disastrous political logic. 

You think about the decision not to wage war against the banking class that brought about the financial crisis and stripped wealth from millions of households, especially communities of color. That decision was a missed opportunity to help people understand who had caused the crisis. We can unpack why they made those choices. Some of it was the technocratic orientation of many of the key people in the administration. Some of it was actual conservatism amongst some people in the administration. Some of it was Obama’s sense that he got to the White House on his own, that he didn't get there by virtue of being in a deep relationship with organized Democratic constituencies. So his sense of the need to strengthen those constituencies was even weaker than it has been for other Democrats. The labor movement's density actually declined under each of Obama's terms, which is a fairly shocking thing if you think about it. Can you imagine corporations leaving Republican administrations weaker than they had entered? 

The other side of the story is conservatives were motivated by will to power. In addition to all the federal obstruction they did, they also ran the table at the state level after the 2010 elections, when they had trifectas in a number of politically pivotal states. So what we got were voting rights restrictions that particularly hobble the ability of people of color, the disabled, and young people to vote. We got attacks on unions and their right to collectively bargain. We got gerrymandering of congressional districts. So the sum of all that was a very strategic effort to knock the legs out from the progressive movement and its core constituencies. When both of those pillars were weakened — the voting power of people of color and the organizational clout of unions — the situation was created for toxic right-wing populism to emerge.


KS: Why are policy feedback loops a useful tool?

CR: Either way, the feedback loop is going to be there. If we don't attend to it, we can't make sure that it's in the service of people in our communities. Others will be attending to making sure that they're in the service of the powerful, the wealthy. We can actually be getting those immediate needs met and be, at the same time, undercutting ourselves for the long haul. Attention is needed to not just deliver in the immediate term but really lay the foundation for power in the future. It’s important to have the patience to be able to do the thing that's going to take a little while, it's going to get a ton of blowback in the moment, but it's actually going to set the conditions for the next big thing. 

DB: You think about the famous battle in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was demonized, vilified, there were mass marches in the state capitol. If you replay the tape further back, nobody in those states, the legislators, the governors who pushed those measures to break unions when in office ran on those policies during their campaigns. These were not actually campaign priorities, but they were governing priorities. They may or may not have been the top priority for any individual member within the conservative coalition. But everybody on the right was going to benefit from, let's be blunt, less people having a union and less Black folks having access to the ballot. So they created a culture that was able to prioritize those longer-term, cross-cutting things, where there's fearlessness about a difference between what you campaign on and what you govern on.


KS: How do you think the Biden administration is doing in regards to policy feedback loops? Do you feel like we've learned the lessons from the Obama administration? 

DB: I think it's definitely an improvement, but there's some major flaws. They clearly understand that the benefits have to be visible to the people who get them. The child tax credit is a good example of this. Some of the measures around trying to make sure that there are incentives to favor labor in infrastructure projects are very positive. The intent around institutionalizing racial equity across different agencies in government is very positive.

I think the big critique is they don't have a plan to save our democracy. It is under the biggest threat in recent memory, and it's really not a core priority.They assume that if you do good on the delivery of economic benefits, that will translate into lasting electoral majorities. However, if the rules are extremely rigged, as they are now, it may not. 

CR: The Biden administration and the legislature are going to do what they're able to do based on what political space we create for them. This is a critical moment for us to be thinking about those feedback loops for democracy to function well. There's a cultural element to what these feedback loops can do. The Republicans think of democracy as a Democrat issue and a bunch of Democrats think of democracy as a technocratic issue. Where does that leave us? Where are people able to experience what it means to participate in democratic practice? 

JM: One thing to keep in mind is that there's a limit in a federal polity like ours to how much the Biden administration can do. Looking at what's happened with rental assistance is a perfect example of that. The administration took significant steps to make those resources available to states and localities. Some of those states have just not done anything with those resources because they lack the infrastructure and motivation to do that. Thinking across levels of government is really critical too when we conceptualize policy feedback.

DB: I just want to double click on thinking about the role of policy in identity formation. One thing that Trump did was use the power of the bully pulpit and the machinery through the government to activate white identity politics. It's always been there. But he weaponized it politically and othered vast parts of the population in a way that reorganized our politics and our battle lines. We do need to have a theory of the case about how policy relates to that kind of identity formation where there isn't othering, where white supremacy is aggressively challenged, and where there's some new conception of us. That seems to me to be a project that has yet to be fully developed.

JM: When we're watching policy processes unfold, we have to think about race. Who's disproportionately affected, which target populations are in our mind when we're thinking about this policy? How is that shaping not just the specific aspects of policy, like design and implementation, but those softer, cultural  pieces. Which identities are going to be activated? Which communities and ways of thinking are going to be weaponized? All of those things have to be a part of the process of how we think about and strategize around policy feedback. There's no getting around it.

CR: The right has really clear stories about the cultural feedback loop, like the welfare queen. The policy feedback loop there was: we're giving away money, we're not requiring anything from it. That then created a different altitude from which we made policy going forward. During the recession, we had a story that actually is not unrelated to the welfare queen, that folks were getting free money, trying to live high on the hog when they knew they couldn't afford it. I'm going to just out myself as an English Ph.D. and say the stories matter. We don't always need to tell it. But when we've got a story, we need to tell the story so that the feedback loop is further buttressed by the cultural and social environment.

JM: I teach a course on public policy. At the start of the class, I always say, well, what makes a good policy? My students are like, policy that helps people. Policy that's efficient and effective and fiscally responsible. I'm like, okay, so let's take an example: housing. In Utah, they implemented this policy to give people some place to live, no strings attached. It actually gets lots of people off the streets and into homes. It's even cost-effective because they're not going to the hospital as much, they're not going to prison as much. That makes good policy, right? Some of my students will say (or anticipate critics saying), but wait, they're getting something for nothing. What about the taxpayers who are paying for it? 

They have ready-made narratives about who is deserving even though the evidence suggests that this policy is helping people. Then I say, but what about dignity? What about this: everybody ought to have a roof over their head, full stop. That narrative of dignity is not on the shelf, it's not readily accessible. So the deservingness story wins because it's already there. We've crafted and cultivated that over a period of time through policy processes and discourses. Policy feedback processes are also about developing narratives that will do the political work we need them to do. Making them more available in the minds of people so that they can do that work.


KS: What are the upcoming frontiers in this work that we want to think about exploring?

DB: One thing that I'm super excited about is the possibility of a radical rethink of the whole area of enforcement. For a long time, the federal government has been weaponized against marginalized and vulnerable constituencies, particularly people of color. It’s gotten worse since 9/11 and the build-up of the Homeland Security state. It’s been taken for granted by both Republican administrations and Democratic administrations that the vast majority of money we spend for enforcing the law should go in ways that harm and surveil and incarcerate people of color. Very little of those enforcement dollars go to prosecuting landlords who discriminate against people or going after tax cheats or breaking up financial behemoths or tech behemoths under the antitrust laws. There's the beginning, thanks to movement work over the last few years, of a paradigm shift. You can feel it with the Democrats talking about antitrust enforcement and some of the appointments in that arena. 

What I'd love to see is a people's enforcement budget that asks some profound questions. Is an undocumented worker a greater threat to our country than the owner of dozens and dozens of major properties who systematically discriminates against people of color? Under what logic is that true? That makes no sense to me. But to look at our enforcement budget, that's what we think, that's how we behave.  


KS: If you had to pick one change that would make policy feedback loops a more central strategic orientation of progressive forces in the U.S., what would you propose?

DB: I think we need a massive effort to train and retrain a generation of people who do policy work, organizing work, and political work. The last couple of generations, people have generally been trained in stovepipes where, if you were a policy person, you were looking at certain kinds of policy efficacy through narrow cost-benefit concepts and over a short time horizon. We're going to need a generation of policy folks who are fluent in the language of power to create some new paths forward in each domain and across all these domains.

Similarly, organizers need to take increasing responsibility for policy design. It's not someone else's job. It needs to be the job of grassroots leaders and organizers because they understand how the systems work. Political professionals are going to need to be engaged in this too. They think about communication to a mass public, they think about stakeholders and core constituencies. We need some engagement with each other and some reorientation to shared objectives to break down the silos between those crafts. 

CR: We need to restructure how resources are allocated in our movement. So I had the privilege of talking with Imara Jones from TransLash Media. The anti-trans movement is part of a much larger movement that is funded by a very coordinated set of funders. They fund an ecosystem of organizations. They fund not for the two-year return but so that their organizations can experiment, can fail, and can build and build and build. Our incentive structure is really around one- or two- or five-year grants. So there’s a disincentive, frankly, to look further ahead at what comes next. We need to actually invest in a much longer-term relationship so that organizations can really dedicate time and resources to prioritizing that and build that into their organizing. 


KS: Any last remarks?

DB: Maybe just one thing. One of the greatest values of policy feedback loops is as a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Our movements get so polarized between folks who are very oriented to radical transformation and folks who are focused on the here and now. Policy feedback loops are crucial as a bridge for people who are committed to a radical transformative vision of society to say, how are we going to do our short-term battles in a way that alters power relationships, that moves us in that direction? The road to big social change is paved with policy feedback loop after policy feedback loop after policy feedback loop. So I think we need to build that bridge. I think it's a crucial missing element for us to get to the kind of transformation we really need.


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